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New cigar shop counts on diverse offerings to create niche

As laughter and smoke filled the room, the sweet aroma of cigars hung in the air.

Strangers became friends as conversation topics drifted from the economy to the love of cigars.

The occasion was a cigar tasting hosted by Old Havana Smoke Shop, which opened recently at the corner of Carothers Parkway and Shingle Way.

Eddie Benham, who opened the shop so he could have a business close to his Brentwood home, carries popular and "boutique" cigars, 150 different kinds of pipes and imported cigarettes - but the store goes far beyond just smokes to encompass pretty much anything manly.

There are gift items for men ranging from Italian-made walking sticks and shoehorns to shaving kits, soaps and creams and even straight razors. Swiss Army knives and pocketknives are also available, including the French-made Laguiole.

"These are very rare; you don't see them much," said Benham, who is part Greek and part Lebanese. "They call them the 'gentleman's knife.' "

But, said Benham, he caters to the ladies, too.

"We encourage women to come in and drink and smoke with the guys," he said.

The shop sells slim lighters that come in various colors and are shaped like lipstick, as well as pipes with a feminine feel.

"They're small and can fit in your purse," Benham said about the pipes.

Benham plans to add to his merchandise handblown glass vases made by Lampe Berger Paris.

"You put oil in them, and it produces a nice fragrance," he said.

Finding a niche

Old Havana isn't Williamson County's first specialized cigar shop. Woody's Smokes and Brews has been around for a while in Cool Springs, and Olde World Leaf & Ale and Stogies, Ale & Fine Cigars are in operation in Brentwood.

So Benham, who owns another smoke shop called Smoke & Ale near the Nashville International Airport, knew he had to tread some new ground to find a place in the somewhat crowded local market.

"We have to do something different," he said.

That's why the weeks-old shop will grow even more diverse in its offerings in the future. Benham, who already sells blown glass hookahs from Romania, plans to add more hookahs to his collec-

tion, install a coffee and cappuccino bar and offer live jazz and blues music.

The store features a 570-square-foot cedar-lined humidor as well as a smoking lounge with leather furniture, a fireplace and a state-of-the art ventilation system - a requirement of Franklin's codes department, said Benham.

The shop offers free WiFi and has three flat screen televisions, two of which are located in the smoking lounge. Customers may also play darts or board games or grab one of 150 types of imported or micro-beer from the cooler.

"I love it," said new customer Rick "Doc" Figger, who said he had been waiting for the shop's Jan. 1 opening. "I'm very excited. I hope it works out for him," he said.

Benham said he believes smoking lounges will flourish more and more as more places ban smoking.

Ron Fultz, owner of Olde World Leaf & Ale, attributes their popularity in Franklin and Brentwood to the more flexible beer laws.

In Metro, he said, "the beer laws are such that to have a permit, you have to serve meals on a regular basis and seat a minimum of 25 people."

Cigars are king

Despite his shop's diverse offerings, it's clear that cigars are Benham's passion.

Old Havana frequently has events such as cigar tastings and pipe tobacco workshops.

The shop carries "boutique cigars," such as Tatuaje, Padilla Habano, Ashton ESG, J. Fuego, Cabaiguan and Trinidad. "Boutique cigars" are made by small companies, or they are just simply hard to find, said Benham. Others brands include Canimao, Savinelli, the Padron Anniversary Series and Monte Cristo Reserva Negra.

The shop also carries full lines Oliva and Gurkha, which are generally available in only a few sizes at other shops, and it features its own brand called "Old Havana," a Honduran cigar.

In addition, Old Havana carries 150 different pipes, including Vaune pipes from Germany, as well as humidors and Prometheus lighters and accessories.

Tobacco is prominently featured as well. The shop has several house blends of pipe tobacco, such as "Coffee Caramel," "Battle of Franklin," "General McArthur" and "Old Havana," which is a mixture of rum and raisin.

The shop's cigarette section includes Nat Sherman and American Spirit as well as imported cigarettes, such as the French-made du Maurier and the German-made Davidoff.

Benham will host a cigar rolling event at the end of March led by Mel Gonzalez, president of Canimao Cigars. Erik Stokkebye of Villigar Stokkebye International will teach one of the upcoming pipe tobacco classes.

Chance for camaraderie

Figger said he enjoys smoking cigars, but he prefers not to make it a social occasion.

"It's a great way to ponder things, forget about work," he said "It's a great time to be alone."

For others, smoking is the opposite. The Nashville Cigar Club, which has about 200 members and regularly meets at places like Old Havana and Smoke & Ale, recently attended one of the shop's cigar tastings.

"It's a good way to meet people, spend time with friends, relax," said member Stogie Santoro.

Members range from construction workers to executives to military vets from age 20 to 60.

"We talk about everything-news, politics, cigars, sports," said Santoro. "Camaraderie-that's what it's about."

Old Havana's recent cigar tasting even attracted former Nashville mayor and U.S. Congressman Bill Boner, now a Franklin resident.

Boner said he's only an occasional cigar smoker. However, he said, Benham's is "a great store."

"I wanted to come see it," he said.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Source: The Tennessean

New cigar shop counts on diverse offerings to create niche